Ten Thousand Birds

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Publication Day

We are delighted that our book (with coauthor Jo Wimpenny) on the modern history of ornithology will be published today, by Princeton University Press. Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin was the product of more than five years of hard work researching and writing, after several years of thinking and planning to undertake this project. Tim obtained some very welcome funding from the Leverhulme Trust to pay Jo’s salary for three years, and to cover the costs of travel and materials to research the book and interview ornithologists.

IMG_3434Princeton Press has really put this book together very nicely. The layout, fonts, paper, colour printing, dust jacket and binding are all superb, and the price seems to us to be remarkably low—if this were a college textbook the price would be five times higher, at least. They have also done a superb job of distributing the book to potential reviewers and you can read their reviews here. As of today there has been a handful of excellent reviews in advance of publication and we will continue to update that page of reviews as new ones appear.

At first, researching and writing a book like this—covering all of ornithology since the middle of the 19th century seemed a daunting, if not impossible, task given the huge volume of published material on birds since Darwin’s day. Maybe this is why nobody had tried this before . But we were fortunate both to get essential funding from the Leverhulme Trust and to be starting this project just as the internet was beginning to make available a wealth of historical material in the form of both published works and photographs. Even after we started work in earnest in 2008, the online BioDiversity Heritage Library, for example, added dozens of ornithological works from the late 19th and early twentieth centuries. Without such internet resources tracking down an obscure reference, or determining what Thomas Henry Huxley had to say about birds and dinosaurs, would have taken weeks or months instead of minutes or hours. The web continues to burgeon with historical material about ornithology and we will do our best to keep you abreast of this material on this blog.

We were also very fortunate to know lots of great ornithologists personally. Tim did his PhD with Chris Perrins and worked with David Lack; Bob did his PhD with Peter Grant—and the works of Lack, Grant and Perrins figure significantly in several of our chapters. We personally interviewed another 50 professional ornithologists who made substantial contributions to the development of ornithology in the latter part of the 20th century. Without all of these personal connections it would have been extremely difficult to bring life to their stories and context to their discoveries.


AMNH (south entrance on W 77th Street)

We also had invaluable help from librarians and museums, where much of the historical material is stored in the form of books and notebooks, as well as literally millions of bird and egg specimens. Bob went to school at McGill University in Montreal where he got to know the wonderful Blacker-Wood Library of Zoology and Ornithology and its librarian, Eleanor MacLean. Eleanor, who is recently retired, gave us unprecedented access to their vast collections of rare material. Similarly, Tim and Jo both went to Oxford and were able to get access to historical materials from the Alexander Library of Ornithology there, one of the finest ornithological library in the world. Clair Castle, Librarian at The Balfour and Newton Library in the Zoology Department at Cambridge University was simply fantastic at about allowing us access and locating historical material for us, often on very short notice. Curators and staff of the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History (Joel Cracraft, George Barrowclough, Mary LeCroy and Paul Sweet) in New York, and at the Natural History Museum at Tring, UK, allowed us to explore their collections and historical archives so that we could learn more about those great institutions, probably the finest two ornithological museums in the world. Visiting those two museums took us back into the very history of ornithology.

Our biggest disappointment in writing this book is that we had to leave so much out. Had we included all of the interesting material that we gathered, the book would have run to 10,000 pages instead of 500. It seems to us a shame to keep all of that material to ourselves so we hope to ‘publish’ much of it on this blog in the hopes both that others will find it interesting and future historians of ornithology will not have to redo some of the research that we have already done. To that end we will also publish here the audio and video recordings of the interviews we conducted, and the huge collection of largely never-before-published collection of photographs and drawings that we could not put in the book.

Tim Birkhead and Bob Montgomerie
26 February 2014

PHOTO CREDITS: Bob Montgomerie

Who was Henry Seebohm?

Henry Seebohm

After my good friend Jürgen Haffer died in 2010, his widow sent me some of his books. These included the 1976 reprint of Henry Seebohm’s Birds of Siberia, originally published in 1880 as Siberia in Europe, recounting his two monumental journeys to Siberia. I hadn’t previously read it, but I found it a revelation and one that captures a distinctive era of ornithology.

Seebohm (1832-1895) lived in Sheffield, northern England, where he owned a steel manufacturing business. He used his wealth to undertake ornithological collecting trips, including two to Siberia: one to the Petchora River in 1875, the other in 1877 to the Yensei River.

Pechora (left) and Yenesei (right) Rivers

At first sight Birds of Siberia appears to be little more than a list of birds shot, interspersed with notes on the anthropology of the Samoyed people. As I was reading, I wished I had kept a list of the species and numbers collected—but I then discovered that the last chapter gives the full score from his first trip: about 1000 skins of 110 species and 600 eggs.

At one level we think of this kind of slaughter as shocking because it wouldn’t happen today. On the other hand, we shouldn’t judge Seebohm by today’s ethical or scientific standards. There were undoubtedly many more birds then and this was the way ornithology was conducted in the late 1800s. Seebohm would have been equally shocked if we had told him that in hundred years time ornithologists would be studying the personalities of birds (and in the future, we’ll look back on that too with amazemen

After shooting some ridiculously tame yellow-browed warblers, a Siberian chiff-chaff and a European willow warbler, Seebohm wrote  ‘it seems too bad to shoot these charming little birds, but as the “Old Bushman” says, what is hit is history, and what is missed is mystery [italics in the original:  I’m not sure who the ‘Old Bushman’ is, and curiously, that phrase is attributed on Wikipedia to the childrens’ author Arthur Ransome from a later date: Ransome presumably read either Seebohm or the Old Bushman].

I wondered what happened to all those shot birds? Seebohm and his companions ate the flesh of those they considered palatable, such as hazel grouse and golden plover. But where are all those study skins? Did any survive? My own departmental museum—the Alfred Denny Museum (http://www.shef.ac.uk/alfred-denny-museum)—of which I am curator, boasts a mounted pair black grouse from Archangel, Siberia, collected and donated by Seebohm. Many of his other specimens—both taxidermic mounts and study skins—are in Sheffield’s Weston Park Museum, and some are in the Natural History Museum (BMNH) at Tring.

As Seebohm discovered, the switch from winter to summer in Siberia occurs without the pleasnatries of spring, and is heralded by the northward sweep of vast numbers of migrant shorebirds, landbirds, wildfowl and raptors. Seebohm watched in awe, overwhelmed by the incontrovertible evidence for migration before his eyes, reflecting that only a few decades previously the very existence of migration had been in doubt.  By the 1870s, however, migration was considered the greatest of ornithological mysteries. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised then to find tucked away amidst the list of birds shot and eggs collected, Seebohm includes two fascinating chapters on migration, summarizing both the current state of knowledge and his own his views.

Later, Seebohm presciently identified daylength as the proximate cue timing the onset of migration. Apparently no one noticed. A few years previously, in 1870, the Finnish poet Johan Runeberg had suggested the same idea in one of his poems—but that idea was squashed by Alfred Newton[RD1] , the pompous old man of Victorian era ornithology. We don’t know whether Sebohm knew of Runeberg’s poem, probably not. It wasn’t until the early 1900s that the idea took hold, thanks to a publication by the physiologist William Sharpey. The full story is told in The Wisdom of Birds (Birkhead 2008:181-184).

The main purpose of Seebohm’s life-long ornithological work was—like that of all serious ornithologists of the day—to study the classification and geographical distribution of birds. His trips to Siberia revealed marked geographic differences in plumage and size in species he was familiar with in Europe: ‘the Siberian form of the lesser spotted woodpecker … has the whole of the under parts unspotted silky white…It is larger than the South European form… ‘.  The Siberian form of the nuthatch…is another case in point. Examples from the Yenesei, and also from the north island of Japan, have the underparts almost pure white’.

It was because of this geographic variation that Seebohm favoured the trinomial system of nomenclature (TTB: 90): ‘Here again the confirmed habit of the older ornithologists of either treating these little differences as specific, or of ignoring them altogether, is much to be deplored ….  I venture to suggest, as a punishment for their delinquencies, that they should be exiled to Siberia for a summer to learn to harmonise their system of nomenclature with the facts of nature’.

Alfred Newton despised Seebohm, saying this of his books: ‘downright errors and wild conjectures there are enough, and they are confidently asserted with the misuse of language and absence of reasoning power that mark all the author’s writings, though the air of scientific treatment … has deluded many an unwary reader’ (Newton 1896: 44 n 1). On the other hand, Mullens and Swan (1917) wrote that: ‘Seebohm’s name will ever rank high among those of British ornithologists, not only as the author of one of the most important histories of British birds, but as … a successful businessman…[and who became] a really scientific ornithologist’.

It seems to me that Seebohm has been overlooked and his ornithological work, especially that on migration and systematics, would benefit from a present-day appraisal. Jürgen Haffer knew this, and just before he died was beginning to research Seebohm. Indeed, his copy of Birds of Siberia that I inherited has a few pencil annotations, marking passages he felt were significant. Someone needs to take up the challenge.


Birkhead TR. 2008. The Wisdom of Birds. London: Bloomsbury.
Mullens WH, Swann HK. 1917. A Bibliography of British Ornithology. London: Witherby & Co.
Newton A. 1896. A Dictionary of Birds. London: A & C Black.
Seebohm H. 1880. Siberia in Europe. London: John Murray.
TTB= Birkhead T, Wimpenny J, Montgomerie B. 2014. Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin. Princeton, Princeton University Press.

…Tim Birkhead 2 January 2014

Myriad Birds

Happy Birthday Charles

Today is Charles Darwin’s 205th birthday and a fine winter’s day to launch a new blog about ornithology, the scientific study of birds. We had hoped to lunch our new book on the modern history of ornithology today, but it will not be available for general distribution until Feb 26th, two weeks from now. You can read about it here, and on the other pages at this website. We are excited about this book, and it has already had some very gratifying reviews by both professional ornithologists and birders.

This blog is an offshoot of our extensive research on the history of ornithology that began with Tim’s The Wisdom of Birds, an overview of the entire history of ornithology, and culminating with our new book (with Jo Wimpenny) that focuses on the study of birds over the past 150 years, Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology since Darwin.

Wisdom of Birds

We began those projects in part because we realized how little our students and bird-minded colleagues knew about the history of our discipline. Our research students sometimes claim that anything published before 2000 is too old to be relevant, and our professional colleagues rarely have the time to read the general ornithological literature any more—as we point out in Ten Thousand Birds, more papers were published about birds in 2010 than in the entire period from Darwin to the end of the twentieth century. Most important, we realized from our own forays into the old literature that there is a wealth of ideas, data, inspiration, and lessons to be had there [see reading list below].

We wrote Ten Thousand Birds to bring some of that historical material to a more general audience in a manner that we felt would be both interesting and accessible. In the process of writing, we realized that we would have to leave out much more than we included. This was necessary because the book would have otherwise been too large both for any publisher and for any reader to feel engaged for very long. So, what we put into both of those books is an eclectic mix that we felt were particularly interesting stories about subjects where the study of birds made important contributions to biology and to science in general.

TTBjacketWe now want to use this blog in part to tell about the wealth of material that we were not able to cover in those books. Our goal is to focus on the study of birds especially where we can provide some interesting historical context. To that end we will blog about interesting people in the history of ornithology, as well as modern discoveries about birds where we can provide some interesting historical background. We will also write about our own adventures as professional ornithologists and sometime birders.

This is not another birder blog but we hope that birders read and contribute comments. There are dozens of excellent birder blogs out there including, in alphabetical order: ABA blogAnother Bird Blog, Bill of the Birds, BirdChick, BirdWatching, Stokes Birding Blog, and 10,000 Birds.

This blog, Myriad Birds, is instead focussed on the scientific study of birds. We have been ornithologists for more than 100 years in total (we started young!) so we have a wealth of experience to bring to this blog. Tim has studied birds in Africa, Europe and North America, while Bob has spent most of his research time in North America and Australia. We are both interested in sexual selection and sperm competition but we have also published on mating systems, migration, song, breeding biology, foraging behaviour, parental care, genetics, and anatomy. Our intention is to blog about current research that catches our interest as well as about people, bird art, books, photos, and discoveries that we simply had no room to put in our books. In the course of writing Ten Thousand Birds we also interviewed about 50 working ornithologists and we will post those interviews here as well, as time permits.

Our initial goal is to publish a new post every Monday and the occasional additional post during the week. We are both busy academics so even this seems like a daunting prospect. We suggest you subscribe to our RSS feed to get weekly updates by email, and also to our Facebook and Twitter feeds if you are into social media. For now, we will moderate your comments before they are posted on the blog.  If you have suggestions for subjects that you’d like to read about, especially if they have a potentially interesting historical context, send us a note on our website’s Comments & Feedback page.

Our blog title Myriad Birds is a bit cryptic. There are, of course, myriad birds—though the numbers of both species and individuals are dwindling at an alarming rate. The English word myriad, however, derives from the Greek word μυριάδες (myriades) which is the number 10,000, approximately the number of bird species in the world, and the reason for the title of our new book. In English, the word myriad has come to mean ‘some big number’ but we like the Greek definition when talking about birds.

Ultimately this blog is about birds. Today in Kingston, Ontario, where Bob lives (and works at Queen’s University) it’s a frosty –23°C but sunny so the chickadees are trying out their spring songs, the juncos are lingering near the feeder waiting for one of the (too) many local grey squirrels to leave, and a peregrine is calling somewhere in the distance; in Sheffield, UK, where Tim lives (and works at the Univ of Sheffield) it is a much balmier 6°C and there are three pairs of bullfinches on his feeders, and pair of Peregrines in the University’s nest box [webcam link].

Tim Birkhead and Bob Montgomerie

12 February 2014

Readings (some of our papers on the history of ornithology)

Birkhead, T. R., Schulze-Hagen, K. & Kinzelbach, R. 2004. Domestication of the canary Serinus canaria – the change from green to yellow. Archives of Natural History, 31, 50-56.

Birkhead, T. R., Butterworth, E. & van Balen, S. 2006. A recently discovered seventeenth century French encyclopadeia of ornithology. Archives of Natural History, 33, 109-134.

Birkhead, T. R. & van Balen, S. 2008. Bird-keeping and the development of ornithological science. Archives of Natural History, 35, 281-305.

Charmantier, I., Greengrass, M. & Birkhead, T. R. 2008. Jean-Baptiste Faultrier´s Traitté general des Oyseaux (1660): an evaluation. Archives of Natural History, 35, 319-338.

Charmantier, I. & Birkhead, T. R. 2008. Willughby’s angel: the pintailed sandgrouse (Pterrocles alchata). Journal for Ornithology, 149, 469-472.

Montgomerie, R. & Birkhead, T. R. 2009. Samuel Pepys’ hand-coloured copy of John Ray’s ‘The Ornithology of Francis Willughby (1678). Journal of Ornithology.

Schulze-Hagen, K., Stokke, B. & Birkhead, T. R. 2009. Reproductive biology of the European cuckoo Cuculus canorus: early insights, persistent errors and the acquisition of knowledge. Journal for Ornithology, 150, 1-16.

Birkhead, T.R. & Gallivan, P.T. 2012. Alfred Newton’s contribution to ornithology: a conservative quest for facts rather than grand theories. Ibis 154: 887-905